Consider the journalist an unlikely fashion icon, if you like. After all it is for a newspaper that Sex and the City ’s fashion plate Carrie Bradshaw toils, providing the chirpy voiceover for the late, well-loved HBO series. A set of shelving units selling like wildfire from Ikea to East Village hipsters is called the “Journalist.” Last year’s BBC America drama State of Play was a hit with its tightly woven intrigue: a team of London tabloid reporters (who happened to own a stylishflat) race to uncover a government conspiracy And most recently, in late September, Richard Avedon shot the final installment of Levi Strauss’ newest advertising campaign at Industria studio in the meatpacking district,capturing through the lens, in his last commercial shoot, the gamine figure of blond-haired, blue-eyed Erik Rasmussen, 26— journalist.
The latest installment in the “Style for Every Story” campaign, part of the largest-ever advertising effort Levi’s has undertaken in its 131-year history, was shot a few weeks before Avedon’s sudden passing while on assignment in Texas for The New Yorker.
In the series of ads, Avedon’s black-and-white full-body portraits are not of fashion models but of “ordinary” people representing a range of métiers, from an aircraft mechanic to a rancher, posing in Levi’s jeans, superimposed over an imprint of each subject’s Levi’s-clad “buttocks” hovering in the background.
This January, magazines including GQ, Rolling Stone and Glamour will feature Mr. Rasmussen, whom Levi’s plucked among nearly 500 candidates to appear in its latest campaign shot by Mr. Avedon, and created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty, the agency that manages Levi’s estimated $50 million account.
On a recent afternoon, Mr. Rasmussen—who originally grew up in Huntington Station, Long Island, before shuttling between classes at the New School in New York, Los Angeles and now London—was eating penne with chicken at an outdoor table at Eatery on Ninth Avenue.
“I’ve been approached before on photo shoots to model, though I’ve never modeled before now. I guess it’s only because I have a decent-looking mug,” Mr. Rasmussen said.
Not because of his journalism credentials? Mr. Rasmussen said he has been a stringer for Entertainment Weekly (though he said he never received a byline), had attempted to launch his own magazine before the Sept. 11 media recession ended that venture, and currently, he says he writes (under a pseudonym) for interior-design magazines in London such as 25 Beautiful Homes; and is also at work on a collection of short stories and a series of interviews with Marine veterans from the Iraq War.
“It’s a bit hard to define what I do,” he said. “I mean, I do construction. I also do photography assistance, and the biggest thing I do is write. So at the time of the shoot, I told Levi’s I was a writer, and they said, ‘We already have a writer for the campaign.’ And I hadn’t had any of my writing published. But I had made some money from writing—from journalism in magazines. So then I told them, ‘I’m a journalist,’ and they said, ‘That’s great.’”
What’s the difference between a writer and a journalist? Is one more ethically bound to avoid product endorsements than the other?
“I don’t see a problem in appearing in an advertisement for a product,” Mr. Rasmussen said. “I mean, I’m not an investigative journalist. I’m not Susan Sontag or anything. I’m writing these magazine pieces to support my projects.”
Mr. Rasmussen has the striking appearance that is marketable to the Levi’s brand. His flaxen, slightly tousled hair was cropped short with a trim beard adding a rough-hewn scruff to his angled chin, while his ocean-blue eyes possessed a feline intensity. He wore a red plaid Polo shirt over a pair of tattered jeans (which were, of course, Levi’s). The storied San Francisco–based clothier—in choosing models like Mr. Rasmussen and crafting a campaign that glamorizes “creative” professions and the everyday people in them—remains as fiercely devoted to an image as any advertising campaign stocked with professional models.
“I never had to show anyone anything [about being a journalist],” said Mr. Rasmussen. “They never asked for any proof. These days, it seems like anybody that has somewhat of a look, people want to use their image for something.”
“A journalist being used as a model? That’s just unrealistic. Print journalists, by nature, are distinguished by our rumpled physique and utter lack of style,” The New York Times ’ R.W. (Johnny) Apple Jr. said in a telephone interview (he’s out in battleground-state Wisconsin on the campaign trail). “In this profession, you’re an ink-stained wretch at 21, and you’re an ink-stained wretch at 61. But I’m a throwback when it comes to fashion. I wear plain checkered shirts and khakis,” Mr. Apple said, before his wife could be overheard reminding him that his checkered shirts happened to be handmade by a London tailor.
Still, Mr. Apple may have a point.
In its Sept. 26 issue, The Times Magazine seemed to relish journalism’s newfound fashion renaissance with its cover of Wonkette blogger Ana Marie Cox gazing insouciantly at a laptop flanked by the prodigious frames of Mr. Apple and Jack Germond of the Baltimore Sun, who hung off each of her milky, bare shoulders illuminated by the computer’s screen. Inside the magazine, in a piece by Matthew Klam, a comely Ms. Cox poses in a sultry black top, cradling a cocktail with a detached coolness.
“They used Germond and me as the old guard who are passing,” Mr. Apple said of the cover shoot. “Today, for whatever the reason, print journalists are seen somewhat more as trendsetters.”
“Well, [posing as a model] wouldn’t work for me,” Mr. Germond, political columnist for the Baltimore Sun and author of this summer’s Fat Man Fed Up, said. “Throughout my career, the rules for a newspaperman were such that you didn’t do anything that involves sales or promotion. Most of us wouldn’t join anything, not even a club, let alone endorse a product.”
Mr. Rasmussen’s road to the Levi’s campaign began last February. While working as a photo assistant at Fast Ashley’s Studios in Williamsburg, a stylist on the shoot, who was also casting for the Levi’s campaign, approached Mr. Rasmussen to capture a Polaroid of him. Later that spring, a B.B.H. representative who was coordinating the campaign contacted Mr. Rasmussen and said Levi’s was interested in him for the second installment of ads. He returned for a follow-up shoot at a studio in east midtown last spring, and then returned to London, and “didn’t think anything about it,” he said. In early September, after returning to his East London flat following a photo shoot in Iceland, Mr. Rasmussen found three messages on his answering machine from a Levi’s representative telling him he won the contract, valued at $10,000 according to people familiar with the deal.
“Sure, I was excited with the deal. If I was going to move back to New York, I needed a new car. And I needed my wisdom teeth pulled. I’m one of those 43 million Americans without health insurance. I’m 26. I needed money just like anyone else,” he said.
Mr. Rasmussen wasn’t the only journalist flagged for Levi’s campaign. In August, The Observer obtained an e-mail sent out by the casting agency Innovative Artists Talent Agency to journalists seeking both male and female candidates.
“THESE PEOPLE MUST BE THE REAL DEAL!!” the e-mail began, and continued: “Females, 24-55, Caucasian and all ethnicities. Real looking, beautiful women with good bodies, attractive, confident, down to earth, natural, approachable, and cool-looking. MUST CURRENTLY BE A
PROFESSIONAL JOURNALIST …. Males, 18-25, Caucasian and all ethnicities,” the message read. “Cool, hip guys. Real looking, interesting, rugged, lean bodies, not buff. MUST CURRENTLY BE A PROFESSIONAL JOURNALIST.”
Attributes including buff, cool and hip would seem to portend traditional casting criteria for a fashion print spot, but Thomas Hayo, the creative director at B.B.H. who conceived the campaign, said that in balancing image and authenticity, Levi’s deliberately did not want a seasoned reporter for the shoot.
“This is about professions people can aspire to,” Mr. Hayo said. “We wanted to have authentic people. But going with people on top of their field would be a mistake. Then it becomes an endorsement campaign. We checked our candidates thoroughly, to see that they are actually doing that and are pursuing what they said they did.
“The casting process was difficult; this was a countrywide search,” Mr. Hayo continued. “Once all candidates had come in, we had to find who has an interesting look; who has a certain pair of jeans they like; and who looks good in certain jeans.”
Of course, journalists have circled the fringes of the fashion world over the years. Andrew Sullivan, the conservative blogger and former editor of The New Republic appeared in a 1993 Gap ad. More recently, in 2003, Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard and Chloë Sevigny chronicled Stephen Glass’ journalistic self-implosion at The New Republic in the indie film Shattered Glass. And perhaps the genesis of the trend began in 1976, when Bob Woodward and the newsroom of The Washington Post were similarly remade in the image of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men.
For Levi’s, journalism’s selling power remains a high stakes game in the $11 billion jeans market, according to experts.
“Levi’s is one of those brands that has really drifted over the years,” said Tim Calkins, a professor of marketing at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.
With the second installment of the “Style for Every Story” campaign, Levi’s seeks to reverse nearly a decade-long slide in sales and stature of the brand. Since 1996, Levi’s sales have fallen from a peak of $7.1 billion to $4.1 billion in 2003.
“When they say they’re using ‘real’ people, these are not people off the street, they are cool people,” Mr. Calkins said. “These ads are trying to make the brand relevant again. But people are skeptical of advertising in general. When they see that they’re featuring an attractive person, people wonder: ‘Is it a real person? Is this a model? And is that a person I want to be associated with?’”
Even so, Levi’s remains sure of journalism’s commercial appeal. As Mr. Hayo of B.B.H. put it: “We didn’t want to have an older, seasoned journalist. We wanted to show that a younger, modern attitude could be a journalist too.”